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Trial and Error 

The search for sushi in a competitive market demands more than great service.

There's a lot of good sushi in Richmond, surprisingly, so the competition is brisk and the challenge formidable for a city of this size. Any contender needs to be up to the task, and I was hopeful, when I entered Nara Japanese Sushi on Main Street, that here might be another bright light on the Asian restaurant scene. Formerly the Café Mandolin, Nara looked promising on the outside, with a tiny deck for al fresco dining and even more promising on the inside, with a few tables in the front and a lovely, long, dark sushi bar in the back facing an even longer bench running the entire length of the wall and studded with little tables. Nishikawa Kasan, the owner, was born and trained in Japan before opening a sushi restaurant, Kappa Nara Sushi, nearly 20 years ago in Hampton Roads. Lured by the bright lights and excitement of a bigger city, Nara is Nishikawa's attempt to duplicate his previous success here in Richmond.

I arrived very early on a Tuesday night with my entire family in tow, and the menu looked promising for sushi-eaters and non-sushi-eaters alike. Even more promising was our alert and cheerful waitress, who — unasked — rustled up a few colored pens for my children and pointed out that the table was topped with paper perfect for drawing. We quickly ordered spring rolls (harumaki), barbecued chicken on skewers (yakitori) and some steamed dumplings (shu mai) to assuage the extreme hunger all children seem to acquire when they walk into a restaurant (and which oddly seems to evaporate when the food arrives).

These appetizers were average Asian restaurant fare, and although I thought the scallions placed between the pieces of chicken on skewers were a nice touch, the chicken itself was bland and unremarkable. So too was the beef and Oriental vegetables (sukiyaki-don) we ordered as an entree; a pile of beef strips and barely recognizable vegetables drowning in a dull brown sauce arrived on a heap of rice. It was so boring, in fact, no one at the table could eat it, even after liberal applications of soy sauce. Nonetheless, I held out hope. The name over the door was Nara Japanese Sushi, and it's not entirely fair to hold the failings of its cooked food against a restaurant that specializes in raw fish.

It was, however, my fate to be disappointed in this respect, as well. I was a little shocked when my tuna roll arrived ragged, the ends of the very warm nori flapping. My next dish, however, the soft-shell crab roll, was a delicious and more precise concoction of tempura soft-shell crab, avocado and flying fish roe. Then I noticed darkened pieces of avocado nestled next to the crab in about half of the pieces of the roll and wondered why I was paying a premium (at $7.95 a roll) for food that should have been thrown out before it was served to anyone. The rest of my sushi selections — yellowtail (hamachi), eel (unagi) and cucumber roll (kappa maki) — were fine (and more reasonably priced at $1.95-$2.95) but no more remarkable than the ubiquitous sushi at Ukrop's.

On each of my visits, the restaurant was sparsely populated. This frequently can be a real plus when you're eating out because the chef can take his time, but at Nara this translated into excellent, friendly service and lackluster, uneven food. Shortcuts seemed to abound, and I couldn't help wondering how the pretty decent sashimi and the fragrant, savory miso soup I had at lunch could become so bland and unremarkable by dinnertime. A knife, some rice and a piece of fish — it seems simple. Unfortunately for Nara Japanese Sushi, these three basics of Japanese cooking fail to align precisely and create a memorable meal. S



Nara Japanese Sushi
($$)
1309 W. Main St.
353-1315
Lunch: Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Dinner: Sunday.-Wednesday 5-9:30 p.m.;
Thursday-Friday 5 p.m.-midnight;
Saturday 5-10 p.m.

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